Is President Trump destroying the unifying power of sports?
This is the critical question after LeBron James touted President Trump for using sports to divide the nation in his recent interview with Don Lemon. Traditionally, sports have been viewed as one of the few arenas where Americans from all walks of life would set aside their differences and bond over the commonality of their favorite teams and players. Historically, U. S. Presidents have relished the unifying power of sports and its ability to help the country move forward. During World War II President Roosevelt gave the proverbial “green light” to Major League Baseball Commissioner Judge Landis to “play ball,” reasoning that Americans deserved to have baseball to distract them from the harsh realities of the war. In 2016 President Obama acknowledged sports for its ability to provide Americans with a more progressive view that enables the country to move forward when he stated that “sports has had this power to bring us together even when the country is divided[i].”
Today the country finds itself at yet another critically divisive stage where race has been one of the focal points. Sports have been an arena where many have attempted to shed light on social injustices. One of the most telling examples of sports being used to bring a divided nation together is the integration of Major League Baseball, which helped the nation to see the error of segregation and forced the nation to acknowledge the humanity of all people.
Since the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of a neighborhood watchman and the death of countless others at the hands of police officers, there has been an insurgence of athlete activism where athletes have used their platforms in an effort to make the country acknowledge the humanity of the lives lost at the hands of law enforcement. NFL players have kneeled during the national anthem in opposition to police brutality before football games, and NBA players have worn t-shirts reading “I can’t breathe” in remembrance of Eric Garner during pre-game warmups.
These demonstrations have led to heated debates regarding whether athletes should use games as a forum to shed light on social justice issues and if such demonstrations are a distraction that takes away from the game. These debates have left the nation grossly divided and has allowed President Trump to politicize these issues to gain political capital. The President has done this by insulting NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem, accusing them of being disrespectful to the American flag and calling for them to be fired during a political rally. Instead of using football to bring Americans together like it once did in Alexandria, Virginia where the newly integrated T.C. Williams High School football team rallied a segregated community together to cheer the team to victory in the 1971 Virginia State Championship game, the President is instead using football and the national anthem protest controversy to further divide the nation.
The President also used basketball to divide the nation when he refused to invite the 2017 and 2018 NBA Finals Champions to the White House after comments from some of the league’s most prominent athletes stating that they had no interest in visiting the White House. This sparked a contentious debate on whether it was distasteful for the players to express their opposition to the President’s policies by refusing the honor of visiting the White House. Instead of seeking to understand why the players felt the way they did and trying to work through any differences to help propel the country forward, President Trump politicized the issue and used it for political gain.
President Trump does not relish the unifying nature of sports and instead seems to thrive on his ability to exploit its divisive issues to support his political agenda. President Trump does not see sports as a tool to teach the nation about inclusion and acceptance the way Coach Haskins of Texas Western College did when he led an all-black starting five to defeat an all-white University of Kentucky team in the 1966 NCAA Basketball Championship, which forced the nation to acknowledge the athletic ability of all athletes. President Trump appears to view sports as a tool to perpetuate the division of the nation for his own political capital. In his apparent views and through his actions President Trump is dismantling the unifying power of sports.
[i] President Barack Obama, Address at 2016 World Series Championship Cubs visit the White House (Jan.17, 2017).